A misty morning on the pedestrianised bridge over the Lake of the Restored Sword in Hanoi, Vietnam.
They assured me I could walk in safety here but I chickened out when I saw the railway line running down the middle of the street. Unfortunately, it also started me humming The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House, which my grandfather used to sing, and it stayed with me for days.
One of the prettiest towns on Lake Orta, it charms with its pebble-studded lanes and stepped alleys branching off from Piazza Motta, the long narrow street behind the lakeshore with its wonderful selection of traditional food shops. Rising high above it is the Monte Sacro (Sacred Mountain), a destination for pilgrims who come to pray at the many chapels on the hill.
Sitting facing the waters of the lake, shaded by chestnut trees and serenaded by the birds, I drank in the panoramic view of the tiny, but beautiful, Island of San Giulio which sits in the middle of the lake (which I had visited the previous day) and wondered if this perhaps, wasn’t the most beautiful spot along the lakes.
The town is a typical Italian town, narrow streets lined with ochre-coloured houses from which jutted wrought-iron balconies hung with geraniums and ferns. The buildings date mainly from the 17th and 18th century but behind the main square, Piazza Motta, there are some dating back to medieval times. These you will see if you make the climb up to the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta and to the SacroMonte.
There are small baroque palaces here and there with open galleries, pergolas and flower-filled balconies as well as hidden courtyards behind wrought-iron gates through which can be glimpsed lush vegetation. On the corner of the square stands the little Palazzo della Comunita which bears the coat of arms of the lake communities that took part in its construction in the 11th century.
Palazzo della Comunita
I have to confess that I didn’t make the trip to the top of the hill to visit the Santa Maria Assunta church. The pebble-stoned pavements were very difficult to walk on, but when I got halfway up and turned to look around, my old friend vertigo decided to pay me a visit and I was halted in my steps and had to be helped down again! Luckily, my friend and fellow-traveller, Solange Hando, was able to continue to the top and she has kindly allowed me to use some of the photographs she took from the top.
The Sacro Monte’s most important building is the Sanctuary which is made up of 20 chapels built between 1591 and 1757, differing in style but blending well into the natural surroundings. Originally it was intended to erect 30 chapels which would narrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but in the end only 20 were built. The interior of the chapels are decorated with frescoes and sculptures most of which are the work of the early 17th century Milanese painters, Giovanni Battista, Giovanni Mauro della Rovere, Giovanni d’Enrico, and the sculptor Christoforo Prestinari. In all, there are estimated to be 900 frescoes in the complex.
I was sorry not to have seen these frescoes and to have missed walking in the tranquillity of this remarkable site, but perhaps another year I may have more luck.
Meantime, here are some photographs of this beautiful town, and the food shops piled high with mushrooms of every type, truffles, olive oils, balsamic vinegars (I saw one priced at over £100), and breads of every shape and taste.
Lovely Italian Foodstuffs
Bloody Good Sandwich Shop
The Dragon slayed by San Giulio in the lobby of San Rocco Hotel
I went to Cremona last winter and two things from that trip I remember clearly: one was how cold it was, so cold that I had to buy a woollen hat from a street trader who charged me an outrageous €20 for a very inferior product: the second, but most important, was my meeting with violin maker, Stefano Conia, a master luthier, an intense young man who makes violins with passion, violins that are bought and played by some of the world’s finest musicians.
Cremona has been important in Italy’s cultural life since Roman times, located as it is on the banks of the Po River, a major junction for trade and commerce. The narrow streets of the city are rich in history, the red brick medieval towers and the Renaissance buildings shading the many statues of its famous sons, Antonio Stradivari and Claudio Monteverdi.
It’s not a walk around Lake Orta, but rather a walk around the small Isola San Giulio (St. Julius’s island) a short boat ride from the town of the same name on the lake. I have to confess it’s not up there with Jo’s Monday Walk, as it takes no more than ten minutes to walk around the entire island. That said, I spent forty minutes on the walk as I stopped often to listen to the sounds and to think about the words printed on plaques high up on the walls in phrases like “Listen to the silence” and “The Walls are in your Mind”.
Lake Orta is one of the prettiest lakes in Northern Italy, as far from the touristy Lake Como as it’s possible to be, and San Giulio is possibly the prettiest town on the lake. It is named after St. Giulio who is credited with expelling snakes and dragons from the island when he arrived in 390 AD (via a raft miraculously made from his cloak) in order that he could build his 100th church there. The Basilica one sees today is dedicated to him and was built on that same site in the ninth century.
Today as one approaches the island, one sees a cluster of buildings built right at the edge of the water, private residences now but once the homes of priests who lived on the island. Inside this ring of villas is the basilica and a Benedictine Abbey where 70 nuns dedicate themselves to silent contemplation and prayer. In a world without words, they go about their work of repairing ecclesiastical garments.
The entrance to the area is through a small arched doorway at the top of a set of stone steps and once through this one is faced with the Romanesque basilica which contains a feast of frescoes and sculpture.
Sometimes called The Way of Silence, other times The Walk of Meditation, it is a cobble-stoned alleyway that circles the island, enclosed by towering grey stone walls topped with green ferny plants that reach for the sky. From the walls project ornamental signs in four languages, one side of which instructs you to listen out for particular sounds while the other side lays down inspirational advice – ‘Listen to the water, the wind, your steps’.
My interest was in the walk, however, so I didn’t spend much time in the church but hurried outside to the cool path that curved around the island, shaded by the buildings on one side and the outer wall of the monastery grounds on the other. There were visitors aplenty on the walk, most observing silence, but there were pockets of noise from one or two groups who didn’t keep to the spirit of the place. There was no discernible movement behind the windows overlooking the path so no doubt the nuns are used to a certain amount of noise.
I completed the loop in about 20 minutes by meandering rather slowly and absorbing the ambience. There are no benches or seats along the way on which to rest which seems a pity, not because I felt tired, but because I felt it would have added to the experience to be able to sit and meditate for a few minutes in these very special surroundings.
Having reached the end, I turned and walked back along the “Way of Meditation” in order to read the words from the other side of the plaques: then I exited through the arched door to board the boat that would take me back to the town of San Giulio for a much-needed café e gelato!
Before I left the island I sat on a boulder overlooking the sea and listened to the silence, a silence only slightly disturbed by the lapping of the waves, the wind sighing in the trees and in the distance, the phut-phut of a motor-boat. I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit here as dawn broke over the lake and the mist rose from the shoreline opposite. The nuns sing Matins every day at 4.30 and in my mind I heard the sound of music drifting from the Abbey as day broke, and I promised myself that I would return one day to experience this moment.
There are a few rooms available and the Abbey welcomes visitors seeking a retreat from the world.
The round-trip fare is 5.50 Euros and the boats shuttle across the bay all day.
Lake Como has always been a fashionable resort but never so much as now when its permanent residents include George Clooney and his wife, Amal Alamuddin Clooney. Before this, the most famous residents were probably, Pliney the Elder and Pliney the Younger. And the Italian Lakes, of which Como is but one, offers visitors some of the most beautiful scenery in Italy.
I can see why the Clooneys chose to make Como their home. Apart from the beauty of its setting – green hills running down to the blue waters of the villa-rimmed lake, just yards from the historic centre, it has the charm of a small town while actually being a large city, a city that has easy access to mountain walks, ski-slopes and plateau parks. It has excellent transport connections (30 minutes to Milan by train), just a few miles from the Swiss border, and ferries and buses service the lake front.
Because of its lake, it is often overlooked that Como is actually a walled city and around which can be found a huge daily market selling everything from leather bags to lentils.
As in any large Italian town, the most important sight is the Duomo, an imposing cathedral built over a period of several centuries, from 1396 through to 1740, Although the façade dates from the 15th century and the dome was designed in the 18th century, the main influences are chiefly Renaissance and Gothic.
Having seen the Duomo – and it is worth seeing – there are many more churches, museums and architectural gems to check out, too many to list all here, but I would especially recommend the Boletto, the unusual striped-marble building which stands next to the Duomo and which is Como’s 13th century town hall, the 10th century Basilica di San Fedele and the Porta Vittoria, the tall stone gateway defending the old town walls.
Readers of Battery Connections (marketed by publisher Don Cleary) should head for The Tempio Voltiano where they can spend many happy hours browsing the exhibits. This unusual Museum is dedicated to Alessandro Volta, after whom the volt was named, and contains much of his working equipment – a truly unique place.
Como is known for its grand buildings, like 18th-century Villa Olmo, Villa del Grumello, and
Villa Sucota on the waterfront and, of course, the long-established, elegant resort of Bellagio, the small village between the two southern branches of Lake Como with a population of only 200. It’s an excellent place to spend a relaxing day, with gardens, lovely views, upmarket boutiques, lots of restaurants and bars. But be warned, it is probably the most expensive spot along the lakes!
But sight-seeing can be hard on the feet and that’s where the boat trip comes in. The regular service of Navigazione Lago di Como steamboat company will take you around the lake, with stop-offs at Cernobbio, Moltrasio, Torno and Blevio. Cernobbio is a charming tourist resort on the shores of the lake and along its banks, there are some beautiful villas, including Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, Villa Bernasconi and Villa Pizzo. The two to see are Villa Erba and Villa d’Este, the former an architectural gem built at the end of the nineteenth century and today important as an exhibition centre, the latter now the famous luxury hotel of world renown.
But my favourite is always to head for the mountains where possible, and all along the lakes, this is very possible. In Como, the funicular railway that opened in 1894, is in Piazza De Gasperi and you can’t miss it. It is a red, half-timbered house with carved woodwork trimmings: once through the gate, you are faced with a platform with one of the steepest inclines I’ve ever seen.
The cable-car is listed as ‘unmanned’ but fear not, this just means that the operator doesn’t actually ride on the car but is still in control over the external engine that drives it. The Funicular ascends through a tunnel that gives way to an open line above ground. Halfway up you meet an identical car coming down.
The Liberty-style houses on top of the hill, 750 metres above Como, are mainly summer homes for wealthy families fleeing from the heat of north Italian cities. During the winter months, when a thick carpet of snow covers the mountains, there are few permanent residents. There is a restaurant, a café, and a souvenir shop but you won’t have come here to shop but to take in the views which are stunning. On a clear day you can see the lake, the city of Como and the outline of its historic centre, the antique Roman castrum, neighbouring towns Tavernola and Cernobbio, the Alps and the Brianza plain. In the mosaic of my photographs taken from 750 metres above the lake, (below) you can see the Duomo in the middle of the town, its copper copula now verdegrised, glinting in the sunlight.
Above mosaic of pictures taken from the viewpoint at Brunate.
Once you’ve admired the views and stocked up with water, there are quite a few hiking trails around Brunate. A popular one is a 30-minute walk to the Volta Lighthouse, and the trails are well sigh-posted.
On the return journey, you will find most people crowding the front cabins to take selfies as they make the steep descent. I think it’s better not to fight for space and just to enjoy the trip and the magnificent views.
And at the end of the day, I decided this was the most enjoyable thing I had done in Como – and that included the two ice-creams I’d had!
When Queen Victoria travelled to The Italian Lakes in 1879 it took four days to reach Lake Maggiore, where she stayed at the magnificent Villa Clara in Stresa. I visited the Lakes a few weeks ago and it took me just three hours from London to my hotel in the same town on Lake Maggiore.
The Queen had to journey from London to Portsmouth, then cross to Cherbourg by boat where she boarded the waiting 9-carriage Royal train, on to Paris for an overnight stop at the British Embassy before travelling to Stresa by yet another train. I flew from Heathrow, a two-hour trip over the Italian Alps, snow glinting in the early morning light, de-planed in Milan and then a quick one-hour run through to Stresa.
Once again, I think how lucky I am to live in this century.
The Italian Lakes didn’t become part of the Grand Tour until the 19th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this traditional trip to Europe was mainly a search for the roots of Western civilization through Greek and Roman remains, and the journey served as a rite of passage for the British nobility, landed gentry, and artists and literati who could find a sponsor. A few women managed it – usually widows of sufficient means.
In 2008, the New York Times described the Grand Tour as something that could last from several months to several years.
The Queen couldn’t spare such a long trip, and I couldn’t afford it.
In my eight days, however, I did manage to cover a lot of ground, taking in the area of Lake Maggiore and the town of Stresa, enjoying meals along the lakefront, taking the cable-car to the peak of nearby Monte Mottorone – a natural balcony offering magnificent views over the Alps and lakes – walking the trails and delighting in the views from the 1,492 metres high plateau; taking a boat to the stunning Isola Bella (I won’t translate as it is much too prosaic) and wandering through the gardens of the 17th century Borromeo Palace; a day spent at Lake Como where I rode the Funicular Railway to Brunate, enjoying stunning views and an incredible panorama over Como which lay 500 metres below, and the surrounding larch covered hillsides; a day spent in Medieval San Giulio on Lake Orta where I visited the offshore island of the same name where The Silent Walk around the perimeter allowed space to appreciate the beauty: a day at Locarno, a Swiss town on the Italian/Swiss border; and a day in Zermatt where the highlight of my visit was the trip on the funicular to the top of the Rothorn from where I had a spectacular view of the Matterhorn, sadly not covered in snow, but there were plenty of snow-covered mountains around me, and hiking and walking trails to keep me occupied.
If I add my Italian Lakes experiences to my travels around Italy I guess I can say I’ve completed my own Grand Tour which has included plenty of Roman and Greek remains from Rome to Ragusa.
I’m still in that post-holiday mood that makes me just want to look at my photographs and read the many guidebooks I bought, but I’ll get around to posting about the individual lakes soon. With any luck, I should manage to link to this post today.
Another lazy Sunday afternoon, thinking I should be gardening, blogging or doing something more useful, and then I opened The Observer, my Sunday paper of choice, to find a picture of a village I’d visited back in 2004, and I shot awake.
The village was Civita di Bagnoregio and there was a whole page article (well, almost a whole page) about the place which, when we’d been there was deserted, save for a few cats and the charming owner of a small, inky-dark, Bodega into which we’d wandered. It was June and there were blazing logs in the open fireplace. Deserted wasn’t the word to describe the village. It was the sort of place you felt you would want to leave come sundown as ghosts seemed to haunt its medieval streets.
What has brought about the article in today’s paper is the fact that Civita has become the first area in Italy to charge tourists for visiting. Venice, where marches against tourism are a regular event, may care to take a lesson from the Mayor, Francesco Bigiotti, who made the decision to charge visitors for accessing the footbridge to the town in 2013 when the charge was 1.50 Euros, raised to 3 Euros this year with 5 Euros on Sundays.
Not only does this small fee enable the mayor to monitor the numbers entering the hamlet, it has also meant that communal taxes have been abolished in Civita and nearby Bagnoregio (pop.3,650) of which he is also Mayor, but it has provided much-needed employment. In fact, the town has zero unemployment now. Four hundred jobs have been created via two hundred new tourism-linked businesses that have emerged in the past few years. And there’s more: there is now transport for disabled local people and an improved health service. With an estimated 850 visitors due this year, the charge has obviously not had a detrimental effect on tourism.
Back in 2004, our party of nine people had been staying at a nearby agriturismo farmhouse in Aquapendiente in Italy’s Lazio region, and one of the places recommended for a visit with our hire car had been Civita. There is no access for cars so visitors must be prepared for the walk across the sloping footbridge. We’d visited Orvieto, Siena and other surrounding towns and this fascinating cobble-stoned village built high on a plateau of volcanic rock surrounded by steep ravines promised to be a complete contrast.
Lying approximately 74 miles north of Rome Civita was founded by the Etruscans nearly 2,500 years ago and its year-round population is only 10 people. It was known as ‘the dying town’ due to floods, landslides and earthquakes that constantly threaten its survival. In 2014 and 2015, some of the old properties plunged into the ravine when the sides of the outcrop on which they were built gave way.
Once at the top of the footbridge, you are faced with a huge stone gateway, the entrance, through which you arrive at the main Piazza which contains a 12th-century church with a bell tower. Off this are meticulously maintained streets of old stone houses, some of which have now been turned into holiday homes. At sunset the stones glow golden, softening the aspect of what could seem fortress-like.
I have no hesitation in recommending Civita as a perfect day-trip from any of the neighbouring towns, Siena, Orvieto, even Rome or Florence, if you have transport and are willing to hike up to the village, but remember, there is no post office, supermarket, chemist, doctor or hospital.
The site is under consideration to be given world heritage status by UNESCO and two important names from the world of cinema are backing this, Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone and director Bernardo Bertolucci. But even if it is not successful, the outlook seems positive for Civita which will live once again, thanks to a tax on tourism.
Now, let’s see Venice do likewise.
I acknowledge, with thanks, the information on the Mayor’s initiatives which I got from the article by Angela Giuffrida in The Observer of 20th August 2017, on p.21
Crete is the largest island in Greece, a place of dramatic mountain ranges and gorges dotted with ancient ruins and architecture from the medieval period onwards. Known as the cradle of civilisation and the birthplace of Zeus, the island provides the backdrop for many of the Greek myths and legends we are familiar with.
Throughout the mountains are scattered hamlets and villages and high in the dramatic White Mountains not far from Chania, lies the village of Therissos, which has not just one, but two museums. One would be unusual in a place of this size (pop. just over 100) but to find two is extraordinary.
I visited the village two years ago when I was staying at Malarme on the coast, mainly to visit the Museum dedicated to the Greek resistance in World War II which I had heard about in the course of my studies in war history.
Sadly, my interest in the wars in which my own country had been involved had led me to neglect local Greek history. I had a lot to learn about the resistance of Therissos over many decades, centuries one might say.
Talking to local people, I soon realized that the important museum for them was the one dedicated to the great Greek patriot and politician, Eleftherios Venizelos who fought for Cretan independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1887, who became the island’s first independent Prime Minister in 1905 and then Prime Minister of Greece in 1910. Of more importance to the locals, however, was the fact that Venizelos was actively involved in the drafting of the Cretan constitution, that he took part in the armed uprising in 1905 which deposed Prince George, and that he negotiated the unification of Crete with Greece.
He lived in Therissos and his house is now a museum dedicated to Venizelos and other local people who were involved in the struggles for freedom from the Ottomans.
The other museum, one dedicated to World War ll, is a purpose built modern space with few artefacts but many pictures and letters. Unfortunately, not many of these are translated but sometimes a volunteer is on hand who can help with this. Entry is so cheap I felt duty bound to leave a large donation as it is purely self-supporting. It is very local to the young men who died fighting the Germans in the mountains, a bloody conflict that is known for the savagery on both sides.
Some of the pictures are harrowing and deal with the war on the mainland as well as the war on Crete, pictures of starving children, scenes from the village of Kandonos which was burned to the ground in retaliation for the killing of 50 Germans, and pictures of the terrible life lived by the villagers during the harsh winters.
The savagery on both sides was legendary, from the locals shooting parachutists out of the sky in cold blood to the occupying forces, shooting whole families and villages on what often seemed a whim.
It is difficult to take all this in, surrounded as one is by a landscape of such beauty.
I journeyed up from the coast on the little ‘Dotto’ train with which most of us are familiar in cities and resorts, but in this case, it traversed the famous Therisso Gorge. It surged up the hill in under an hour, through magnificent scenery, the air heady with the scent of herbs, great swathes of wild thyme, rosemary, pine, marjoram, oregano, and fennel. Many of the olive trees along the side of the road are hundreds of years old and behind the rocky caves can be glimpsed walnut, almond, hazelnut and chestnut trees.
In the village itself, red, white and pink oleander trees bloomed, the scent mingling with the smell of cooking from the little tavernas that were operating, some with open wood fires and all serving delicious Greek salads and fresh fish, alongside local dishes infused with the scent of pine seeds, olive oil and fennel.
The little Dotto train allowed about two or three hours for a visit, long enough to wander around the village, have some lunch and still have to time visit both museums.
I enjoyed the trip so much I went back a second time a few days later and spent more time in the museums, reading the letters with the help of a student and trying to come to grips with what had happened here where the resistance hid out for many years during the second world war, harried and hunted like animals, during bitter winters of extreme cold, and parched summers of extreme heat.
The photographs tell a tragic tale and I am haunted by them still.
Best books on the history of the Battle of Crete:
Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor (John Murray, Paperback – a division of Hodder Headline (1991). Still regarded as the best history of Crete during WW11
The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis (trans. by Patrick Leigh Fermor): John Murray, Paperback (first published 1955). A first-hand account by one of the partisans from the mountains.
Both my ‘texture’ pictures come from Bratislava, a lovely city where old traditions are still honoured, lace making is still practised by ladies who sit in the square with their spools of white cotton, and where the coffee house is an institution.
This first picture definitely reminds me of texture. Before visiting I had read about the fabulous Bratislava chocolate and couldn’t wait to try it. It was a cold, rainy day and I was looking forward to some hot drinking chocolate with a dollop of cream on top. No one had told me that it is a liquid chocolate eaten with a spoon. Texture.
My second texture is also nostalgic. This was a sweet-shop in the centre of town with an array of boiled sweets, caramels, toffees and chocolates, that so reminded me of my childhood. I could taste the texture of the clove sweets, the bullseyes, and the fruit caramels but I ended up buying some delicious chocolates. You guessed it, I’m a chocoholic.
I couldn’t resist this one. I also saw it printed in very large white letters on a wall in the downtown area but it was in an area in which one felt uneasy taking photos so I didn’t even take my camera out.
It reminded me that we once had notices all over the place, including buses and trains, that said: “Do Not Spit”. How times have changed.
My world through my camera .... while I practise mindfulness and being in the moment as often as I can, I am never the less inclined to record so much of what I see on a day to day basis. I find solace behind the lens, it brings me joy to create beautiful images and fulfilment to record something that just needs to be told. I fell as if my camera at times is just an extension of myself and it will find an image in what may be the tiniest little part of the day or the world around me . Living with depression for much of my life I have been able to use it as a tool to refocus ( pardon the pun)